BEIRUT: Accompanied by a young man on buzuq, vocalist Abdel Karim al-Shaar raises his voice and the performance hall of Metro al-Madina falls silent. Saltet Tarab, as his duet act is called, is meant to be an informal approach to tarab, a musical form reputed to provoke ecstasy in its performers and audiences.
Saturday evening sees the duo perform a pair of (relatively brief) tunes, the first being “Wahdi ana wel kas” (Leave me and my drink alone).
Although the song was first popularized by Syrian-born performer George Wassouf, Metro scuttlebutt has it the composer – buzuq virtuoso Matar Mohammad, the father of Shaar’s accompanist – actually wrote the tune for Shaar, who considers his own version more authentic.
The vocalist is a regular here, best known for his ensemble tarab concerts – each devoted to a single tune from the Umm Kalthoum songbook, ornamented with his own improvisations. These have earned Shaar something like a cult following at Metro.
Once Shaar opens his mouth to sing, any audible conversation provokes an impatient “Shh!” from devout audience members.
Otherwise, silence had very little to do with the Saturday evening’s concert. The show (reprised Sunday) celebrates the sixth anniversary of the Hamra Street cabaret that writer-performer Hisham Jaber and his collaborators founded in the little sub-basement theater of Masrah al-Madina.
While the space hosts small (nonmusical) theater pieces and has been a performance venue for alternative music, as well as yearly music events like Irtijal, Lebanon’s experimental music festival, Metro al-Madina’s reputation rests on the raucous, bawdy, often hilariously entertaining brand of musical comedy devised by Jaber & Co.
These anniversary concerts are a medley of sets sampling various shows the space has staged over the past year, effectively distilling Metro’s signature vibe. As if to offset this heady distillation process, each anniversary show is a standing-room-only affair; any tables and chairs not bolted to the floor are removed.
Between each of the concert’s several sets, Roberto Kobrosli (aka Hisham Jaber) steps out from between the curtains. The Metro’s emcee has demonstrated an eccentric fashion sense over the years but this evening’s ensemble – a turquoise velour jacket with leopard-print lapels and matching bowtie, topped by a dishevelled wig of black curls – demands a rare shout-out.
“Dudes!” he grins in his oft-repeated sentence-long foray into English. “I miss you!”
Kobrosli’s interventions – recounting anecdotes, riffing upon the audience’s level of sobriety and cajoling them to sing along to the sixth anniversary anthem he’s improvised – has the capacity house in fits of laughter virtually every time he opens his mouth.
Since the Metro’s cabaret shows draw upon a small pool of local talent – most all of whom are much younger than Shaar – these anniversary concerts keep the space’s regular performers busy.
Egyptian-born vocalist Maryam Saleh – the voice behind “Masrah Sayed Darwish,” Jaber’s darkly comic tribute to pop music giant Sayed Darwish (1892-1923) – is front and center here for snippets of the “Metrophone,” an omnibus series featuring various musicians and vocalists, “Aghani Servicaat” (loosely “Taxi Songs”) as well as her “Maryam Saleh sings Adawiyah.”
Stalwarts of “Hishik Bishik” and “Far Farouk” (salutes to historic pop music of Egypt and Lebanon, respectively, and Metro’s two longest-running shows) Roy Dib and Lina Sahab both appear at least twice, while fellow cast members Yasmina Fayed and Randa Makhoul (best known as the troupe’s belly dancer) appear perhaps four times each over the course of the evening.
Vocalist Sandy Shamoun (the female voice of Al-Rahel al-Kabir, who’s also performed in Jaber’s “Political Circus”) appears during “Metrophone” and “Aghani Servicaat” sets as well as a set taken from the Metro’s show of ’80s-themed pop music Shamoun headlines.
As the evening stumbles forward, Metro’s performers are increasingly likely to wade into the audience. During one of her several onstage turns this night, Randa Makhoul makes a particularly picturesque leap from the stage to the mosh pit below, without missing a beat.
By the final act – the Egyptian shaabi sounds of Hezz ya Wezz, featuring Firas Andary on vocals – regulars like Fayed, Sahab and Shamoun can be seen grooving in the mosh while audience members are invited on stage.
Like “Saltet Tarab,” the “sound” that lures Metro’s core audience – and which dominates this anniversary concert – draws upon the deep reservoir of popular music composed in this region between the 1940s and the ’80s. Audiences of “Saltet Tarab” may demand quiet but the theatrical energy (and volume) of later acts tend to amplify (and audience members are more likely to be dancing) as things stagger toward midnight.
This is the abiding feature of Metro’s peculiar cultural profile. The sound that the core repertoire emulates is firmly lodged in the past, which makes it easy to see Metro’s 6-year-old run of success as a thing of nostalgia.
Nostalgia may be an important factor for audiences, but for the players – whether Jaber’s writing or the work of his performers – that relationship seems more complex.
Clearly there’s a sweet-natured affection for the profane Egyptian repertoire in “Hishik Bishik” (which has been running for five years now) yet the old tunes are revisited with a mixture of amusement and affection that is utterly contemporary.
That’s why “Masrah Sayed Darwish” seems so distinct from the common reception of Darwish and his work. That’s why the vein of yearning Metro’s tapped is very much now.